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  • Alistair Tait

English expectations

How many of us have been daydreaming of returning to golf courses we know and love once this Covid-19 nightmare comes to an end? I have. This past year has reminded me that I’ve perhaps taken it for granted how lucky I’ve been to have a career that’s meant visiting the world's top courses.

Like many, I’ve been confined to my own golf club for the best part of a year with just a couple of exceptions. Fortunately, Woburn Golf Club has three fantastic golf courses to keep me satisfied, three distinct layouts in the Duchess, Dukes and Marquess course to test all handicaps, particularly my own humble and ever-increasing 11.2 index.

I’ve managed to play The Berkshire (above) and Hunstanton in the last 12 months, but I’m champing at the bit to return to courses I know and love, and to get to courses I’ve always been meaning to play but have not quite found time to do so. I’m going to start with English courses since, well, since I live in England and I can get to many of these layouts in a few hours given I live in fairly central location.

You’ll notice I haven’t put the Open courses on my list. That’s not to say I don’t want to play the regal Royals of Birkdale, Liverpool, Lytham and St George’s. I do. It’s just that I have a hankering for courses that don’t quite get the publicity they deserve. So here goes with my English expectations once I get my second vaccine and can move further afield.

For readers based outside the UK, take note of some of these courses and get them on your bucket list. Perhaps include them when you visit the Open venues. You won’t be sorry.

1. Woodhall Spa, Hotchkin course – This lovely Lincolnshire layout is perhaps England’s best inland course. It certainly has the most penal bunkers for my money. It also seems to lure you into a false sense of security over the opening holes which seem fairly generous off the tee only to narrow as you progress through the round.

Local knowledge: Stay out of the bunkers and you have a chance to play well.

2. West Lancashire – Arguably the greatest of hidden gems in the country considering its grouping with Royal Birkdale, Formby, Hillside, and Southport & Ainsdale. It is hardly mentioned in clubhouse conversations of the Southport area except by true aficionados.

Local knowledge: Has a great collection of par 3s, especially the 177-yard sixth with the green sitting on a wee plateau.

3. Ganton – First visited this Yorkshire gem for a Boys Amateur, and have been lucky to get back there for Walker and Curtis Cups. Fortunate to have played it a few times too, but not for a wee while.

Local knowledge: It may lie inland but often plays like a proper, fast running links.

4. Littlestone – I play this course nearly every year in the 72 Club, four rounds of medal play in one day walking and carrying. It’s perfect for quick golf since tees are very close to greens. The 16th and 17th holes might be the best par-4 and par-3 respectively in England.

Local knowledge: Little links with a big bite.

5. The Berkshire – Probably my favourite club outside of my own because I’ve been fortunate to play the Red & Blue Courses many times over the years thanks to best friend Paul Anderson being the head professional. The Red course features six par-3s, six par-4s and six par-5s, while the tougher Blue makes this old club a perfect day’s golf.

Local knowledge: Make sure you have the carvery lunch. Arguably the best in England.

6. Ashridge – A club once very close to Sir Henry Cotton’s heart, and one of the prettiest inland venues in England. To stand outside the clubhouse and look at six holes running to and from the central hub containing the clubhouse is a glorious sight.

Local knowledge: It only measures 6,678 yards to a par of 72, but it has proved a tough test as a regional qualifying course for the Open Championship. Don’t take it for granted.

7. Saunton East – Perhaps worthy of an Open Championship but just too isolated a links to handle a modern major. Glorious golf course.

Local knowledge: Don’t challenge head professional Albert Mackenzie to a match. The man from Aberdeen will putt you off the course.

8. Swinley Forest – Short course, very exclusive club, but worth writing a begging letter to try to get on, especially in the Spring when the rhododendrons are in bloom to provide a stunning backdrop.

Local knowledge: Make sure you cast your eyes over the membership list in the entry hall.

9. Royal Cinque Ports – This two-time Open Championship course (1909 and 1920) once suffered from overwatering and too much fertilisation, allowing meadow grasses to invade the links turf. However, the club made considerable efforts to restore it to its former glory and it’s a must play.

Local knowledge: A trifecta including nearby Prince's and Royal St George’s is de rigueur.

10. Berkhamsted – This bunkerless course not far from Ashridge is one of the most under-rated in England and well worth a round if only to marvel at how sand isn’t needed to provide challenge.

Local knowledge: This heathland tract can get quite hard and dry in the summer. Being able to compress the ball is a big asset.

Wish list:

Royal West Norfolk (Brancaster) – if only to experience the tide cutting off the course from the mainland.

Royal Worlington & Newmarket – Herbert Warren Wind called it "the best 9-hole course in the world." That's good enough for me.

Burnham & Berrow – Not quite sure why I haven’t played this links given so many strong recommendations.

Alwoodley – An Alister MacKenzie classic I still haven’t played, even though I attended a Woman’s Amateur Championship there when Carlotta Ciganda defeated Anna Nordqvist.

St Enodoc – I fell in love with this course when I walked around it one evening during the English Amateur at Trevose. Can’t believe I haven’t been back to play it.

Photograph by Will Bailey courtesy of The Berkshire

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